September 18, 2022
Instant chemistry: How four Ivy League alumnae came together to play – and grow – 3×3 basketball
‘They’re what I love about basketball,’ said WNBA point guard-turned-fan Natasha Cloud
WASHINGTON – On a partly cloudy but warm September afternoon, on a three-on-three basketball court set along the Potomac River, a team of former Ivy League stars looked like a well-oiled machine.
“You can tell that they’ve been playing together for years, and it’s really fun to watch,” Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud, who attended the three-on-three (3×3) event at the request of its sponsor, Red Bull, told The Next.
The Ivy Leaguers had indeed known one another for years — all four graduated within three years of each other in the late 2010s — but they had never all played on the same team.
“We’ve been talking about it since last year, like, ‘When are all the Ivy Leaguers going to get on one team?’” Columbia alumna Camille Zimmerman told The Next.
Zimmerman played with Princeton alumna Blake Dietrick this summer through Force 10 Sports Management, the ownership group that established the first professional 3×3 women’s team in 2019. They participated in several events in Red Bull’s 3X series, which ran from June 25 to Sept. 17, and developed a special chemistry on the court. Though Force 10 wasn’t officially sending a team to the Sept. 10 event in Washington, D.C., Zimmerman and Dietrick wanted to play and set their all-Ivy idea in motion.
They got fellow Force 10 player and Dartmouth graduate Lakin Roland on board, and they wooed Leslie Robinson, a former Princeton teammate of Dietrick’s who lives in Washington, out of retirement for the occasion. All four were First Team All-Ivy League selections, and they came together to have another chance to compete — and to try to grow the game of 3×3.
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The Ivy League is well-represented in 3×3 because Princeton alumnus John Rogers was one of the original proponents of the sport in the U.S. and recruited former teammates to play for Team Princeton 3×3 decades ago. Rogers eventually expanded his recruiting beyond the New Jersey school, and his influence persists today: All four players on the Ivy League team in Washington started playing 3×3 through a connection with Rogers or Princeton.
In 2019, the Red Bull 3X series launched to offer players opportunities to play in 3×3 tournaments that are sanctioned by USA Basketball and use official FIBA 3×3 rules. According to Red Bull, the series is a pipeline for teams to compete in the USA Basketball 3X Nationals and for players to be considered for the national team.
3×3 is played on a half court with a 12-second shot clock and live substitutions. Shots from inside the arc are worth one point and shots from behind the arc are worth two, and the winner is the first team to 21 points or the team with more points after 10 minutes. The game is extremely fast-paced with quick transitions: After a made basket, defensive rebound or steal, the team with the ball only has to dribble or pass to a player outside the arc to start its offensive possession.
“Three-[on]-three’s so exciting the way that it’s played,” said Cloud, who attended USA Basketball training camps for 3×3 in 2020 and 2021. “It’s nonstop. It’s consistent. It keeps people’s attention.”
“It makes you play in small spaces better because there’s only a half court,” Dietrick told The Next. “You have to be a little bit more nimble. You have to be quick with your decision-making. There’s no stop; ball goes through the hoop and you’re playing again. So there’s a transition in a sense, but it’s different from five-on-five. I think finishing around the rim, you have to be more creative. … It’s a place where you can feel free to try new things and experiment.”
Dietrick, a 5’10 guard, played in the WNBA for five seasons between 2016 and 2021, averaging 2.1 points and 1.5 assists in 11.8 minutes per game. She plays five-on-five overseas and will play for the French team Lyon this winter. Three-on-three is her “summer gig” in years that she doesn’t get a WNBA contract, and it has helped her expand her game and get more opportunities to play.
“She’s always been a skilled player, [and] her ability to lead on the court has always been there,” Robinson told The Next about Dietrick. “… She’s a great player … She’s too good and too healthy to not be playing. I think our sport needs it and she’s a really good advocate. [I] just love watching her, love playing with her.”
Similarly, Zimmerman balances overseas play in the winter with 3×3 in the summer. “I have flight points I’ve traveled so much,” she said. Her itinerary this summer included a trip to Japan, where she participated in a training camp for EXE Wing, a 3×3 team of Japanese and American players that competed in a FIBA event in Canada in July.
“I was instantly hooked [on 3×3],” Zimmerman said. “… Everything about it I love. … You do all this skills training, but you don’t necessarily get to use all those skills in a five-on-five game, and with three-on-three, you really get a chance to show your skill set and also get exposed at the things you’re bad at.”
Zimmerman, a 6’1 guard/forward, said her strengths in 3×3 include footwork and basketball IQ, and she was a frequent matchup problem for opponents at the Washington event.
“They’re two of my favorite kids I’ve ever coached,” Megan Griffith, who coached Dietrick as an assistant coach at Princeton and Zimmerman as the head coach at Columbia, told The Next before the event. “Their work ethics are literally some of the best, hands down. … Blake can shoot the crap out of the ball, Camille’s like a Swiss Army knife, and they both just don’t stop — you know, kind of a ‘whatever it takes’ mentality.”
Unlike Dietrick and Zimmerman, Roland and Robinson are balancing basketball with full-time careers outside of sports. After graduating from Dartmouth in 2016, Roland played five-on-five in Europe for two years, then became an assistant coach at her alma mater for three years. She is now the deputy chief of staff at Banff Advisors, a consulting firm that advises business leaders on their careers, but she also came out of retirement last year to compete in 3×3.
The 6’ forward said that her shooting opens up the game for her in 3×3 and, combined with her tactical knowledge, allows her to compete with more athletic players. She has also developed her IQ by coaching the U.S. Under-23 team.
“Any type of player-coach hybrid opportunity with [USA Basketball] or even with Force 10, I’m pretty much plugged into, or at least open to helping out, just because I love it,” Roland told The Next.
Robinson, a 2018 graduate, also played five-on-five in Europe for two years before retiring and entering coaching. In 2021, she pivoted to the film and television industry, becoming an associate producer at Trilogy Films. But she had always known about 3×3 because her father, Craig, had played with Rogers and Team Princeton.
“I used to go to those games as a little kid,” Robinson said. “So three-on-three has always been a part of my life, and it’s really awesome to see that it’s growing into such a big game now. And I’m excited that I can be a small part of it.”
Speaking before her 3×3 debut, the 6’ forward said she hoped to lean on her versatility, passing and court vision to blend with her teammates. She wasn’t sure whether she would be “one and done” with 3×3 or continue playing, saying that she would see how her body felt after the Washington event.
That event pitted the Ivy League squad against two other teams, with round-robin games followed by a championship. The games took place on Transit Pier, in the southwest Washington neighborhood known as The Wharf that has lots of restaurants, shops and scenic views. With the event being played outside and the women’s division competing from roughly 12 to 2 p.m., it was easy for people to stumble upon — and stay to watch — the games.
The Ivy League team won its round-robin games 21-14 and 21-2, showing off a mix of smart cuts, reverse layups and shots from distance. It closed the first game on a 7-4 run in the last three minutes and dominated throughout the second game. Britt Waters, the former in-game host for the Mystics, and Young Wayne, a comedian and host, provided lighthearted sideline commentary, and Cloud was also glued to the action.
“Do you all know Natasha Cloud is watching you?” Waters said during the second game, addressing the players on the court. “No pressure, but if you were ever going to show off, this would be the time to do it.”
The Ivy Leaguers did show out, earning Cloud’s admiration as well as a $3,500 first-place prize. Throughout the event, Roland showed off the shooting she identified as an advantage, and Zimmerman scored at all three levels. Robinson made some nifty passes, including one to Roland that prompted Young Wayne to (erroneously) say, “They played together [before] for real for real!” And Dietrick was the glue, getting a steal in the championship game despite losing her shoe on a previous possession and earning Waters’ vote as the most valuable player midway through the second game.
“They’re what I love about basketball,” Cloud said. “… They just move the ball. It’s unselfish play, which is the type of basketball that I love to watch. Their movement without the ball is phenomenal.”
During warmups for the championship game, which pitted the Ivy Leaguers against their first round-robin opponent, they made so many consecutive shots that Young Wayne said, “Can y’all miss one shot? … Hello??”
The Ivy League team won that game 21-19, defeating a team featuring former Oklahoma State star and first-round WNBA Draft pick Andrea Riley and former Oklahoma and Lamar point guard Jenna Plumley. The game was hotly contested: Dietrick came away with several scratch marks near her shoulder, and free throws were plentiful.
“That last game was intense. But that’s what’s fun,” Dietrick said afterward.
The Ivy League alumnae also recognized the opportunity they had, regardless of their results, to help grow the game. The U.S. women won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, but other countries are much further along in their infrastructure and development. Zimmerman pointed to countries such as Germany and Spain that have professional teams training year-round, whereas Dietrick said that some 3×3 tournaments in the U.S. only have Force 10 teams competing.
This is especially crucial because qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics depends largely on team rankings, which are calculated based on individual player rankings. Players earn points toward their rankings based on their best nine performances in the past 12 months. This encourages consistent training and competition in 3×3 rather than pulling athletes from five-on-five.
“[We need to be] implementing it into each level and layer of basketball,” Robinson said of 3×3. “I think overseas they’re starting to do that, where they have three-on-three kids’ teams and … you go from your junior league to high school age, college age, up to pros. So I think that that’s just something that we need …
“I think people get a little thrown off because they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just the same as five-[on]-five. And it isn’t at all. So I just think there needs to be more awareness, more visibility, like there is with all women’s sports. But I just hope that more and more people can get some exposure to it and realize how amazing the game is.”
There have been signs of progress: At the youth level, AAU hosted its first 3×3 national championships in 2019, and the U.S. won its fourth straight U-18 3×3 World Cup this year. The U.S. also participated in the inaugural 3×3 competition in the Deaf International Basketball Federation World Cup this month.
“Hopefully [3×3] continues to grow, and, I mean, it already has just in the three years that I’ve seen it,” Zimmerman said. “So I don’t see anything stopping it. People love playing.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.